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Sleeping for a 'few hours' is nothing to be proud of

  Sleeping fewer hours leads to "sleep debt". [iStockphoto]

Compared to other bodily processes like digestion, breathing, or even thinking, sleep seems almost trivial. After all, how much time do we spend asleep in a day? A fifth of it? Maybe a third? Or only a tenth? In comparison to these other activities, it's easy to assume that sleeping is not that important.

But as it turns out, sleep is one of the most essential aspects of our lives. Getting the right amount and type of sleep has been shown to have positive effects on our physical and mental health. There are various ways to improve your sleeping habits. Exercise is one of them.

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of being "tired" in the sense of mental and physical exhaustion. But being tired is actually only one aspect of the experience of getting enough sleep.

We also need to fall sleep and stay asleep and exercise can help with both of these aspects of sleep. The connection between sleep and exercise is not fully understood.

First, exercise causes a release of endorphins in the body, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, a consistent exercise routine increases the amount of melatonin produced - melatonin is the hormone that is responsible for making us feel sleepy. This means that exercise can help you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, leading to more restful sleep.

Poor sleep quality can have a number of negative effects on your health. For one thing, it can make you feel tired and lethargic during the day, disrupts concentration and focus besides negatively impacting your mood and the immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds and flu.

These negative effects of poor sleep can be reduced (or eliminated) with regular exercise, which also improves the quality of your sleep by helping you to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and wake up more refreshed.

Indeed, exercise is recommended for those who suffer from insomnia and other sleep disorders.

You may have heard of "sleep debt", which means not using the required hours of sleep every night. Sleeping fewer hours leads to "sleep debt" and one way of paying off is sleeping more - but how much? Experts recommend that adults sleep for between seven and nine hours per night.

This though varies from person to person - the best way to know how much sleep you need is tracking your sleep patterns. People who exercise regularly need slightly less sleep than those who don't. Regular exercise can help you to reach the ideal amount of sleep more easily.

There are many ways to exercise so as to improve your sleep. These can range from simple things like closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths to more complex activities like yoga or meditation.

One easy way to exercise for better night sleep is walking, which is a low-impact activity that helps reduce stress, regulate circadian rhythms, and improves quality and duration of sleep.

Another option is to do strength training, which improves quality of sleep in elderly people. You can also try doing light stretching, which relaxes the body and improves sleep, and you can easily and quickly do so before bedtime.

Some people are not sure how much exercise they should be getting, but this you can figure out by keeping track of your sleep patterns, moods and how you feel overall.

The writer is an author, physical and health education teacher and sleep researcher.

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